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Saving space for the harbour porpoise in UK seas


I remember the first time I saw a harbour porpoise. I was taking an early morning boat trip with a group of eager folk from Bridlington, East Yorkshire. It was a sunny July day and the conditions were flat calm – you could have thought we were in the Mediterranean. Bliss!

After about 20 minutes, I glimpsed a fin popping out of the water. It was too small to belong to a dolphin or a whale, it had a round head and its dorsal fin was positioned almost exactly in the centre of the body. These are all characteristic features of the harbour porpoise. You may not think it, but the North Sea is a real haven for marine mammals!

Harbour PorpoiseHarbour Porpoise surfacing, showing its head, dorsal fin and relatively small size (about 1.5m in length). It’s rare to see a headshot of these animals before they dive beneath the waves. © Andrew Reding, flickr

The harbour porpoise is the smallest cetacean (the group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) we have in the UK  and collectively the UK has a large percentage of the EU population of these shy and elusive creatures (at least 130,000 individuals). Yet, although the UK Government is legally required to conserve harbour porpoises, it’s been reluctant to provide protected areas for them. In the meantime, it’s sadly thought that over 1,500 harbour porpoises die every year in British waters through entanglement in fishing gear, and they’re also sensitive to underwater noise and pollution.

WWF steps up the pressure

In light of these increasing threats, we made a formal complaint to the European Commission back in 2012 about the UK Government’s failure to protect the crucial areas that these animals use to feed and breed, which was successfully upheld.

As a result of our complaint, I’m pleased to report that things are now looking up for harbour porpoises. In January, the government finally launched a set of public consultations on the creation of five special areas of conservation (SAC) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These large sites were chosen because they contain the highest densities of harbour porpoises, based on 18 years of scientific data from a range of organisations, including ourselves.

Map of possible harbour porpoise SACsMap of the five possible SACs for harbour porpoise in English, Welsh and Northern Ireland waters currently out for public consultation. © JNCC

Delivering sustainable development in harmony with nature

These SACs will help maintain the numbers of harbour porpoises if well managed, but it’s important to note that they won’t be no-go areas for people. The SACs are designed to allow activities, such as renewable energy, to take place as long as they don’t significantly injure or disturb the porpoises and their habitat. That’s why, on top of responding to these consultations, we’re also commissioning exciting research to help identify what these sites will mean in practice, and talking to industries to find solutions that benefit both people and porpoises.

A separate consultation will also be coming out for similar sites in Scotland. Once these consultations end, the UK Government will hopefully recommend to the EU that these sites should be officially designated. It’s thanks to pressure from us and other NGOs that these sites have been identified at all, and we’ve got to make sure they actually make a difference to the animals in the water. Our work won’t stop here!

We’re always keen to hear from our supporters – have you ever seen a harbour porpoise? Let us know your experience in the comments below. Why not take a look at the rest of our marine work too.

UPDATE (23 March): the Scottish Government has today released its public consultation on one large site for harbour porpoise off the west of Scotland, adding to the five sites previously mentioned – you can find more details on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

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